Pope St. Leo the Great, who reigned from 440 to 461, considered by many Protestant and secular historians as the first pope, and revered as a saint by the Orthodox, spoke perhaps more clearly than anyone up to that time concerning Roman primacy and papal duties, prerogatives, and supremacy, yet his views were merely the culmination and more advanced development of what had been the essential beliefs of the universal (that is, Catholic) Church from the beginning. All the words below are his own (blue highlighting is my own, not based on italics in the original):
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The Lord . . . wanted His gifts to flow into the entire body from Peter himself, as if from the head, in such a way that anyone who had dared to separate himself from the solidarity of Peter would realize that he was himself no longer a sharer in the divine mystery . . . The Apostolic See . . . has on countless occasions been reported to in consultation by bishops . . . And through the appeal of various cases to this see, decisions already made have been either revoked or confirmed, as dictated by longstanding custom. (Letter to the Bishops of Vienne, July 445, 10:1-2; in William A. Jurgens, editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers (“FEF“), 3 volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 3, 269) [link to Schaff, NPNF2]
Although bishops have a common dignity, they are not all of the same rank. Even among the most blessed Apostles, though they were alike in honor, there was a certain distinction of power. All were equal in being chosen, but it was given to one to be preeminent over the others . . . the care of the universal Church would converge in the one See of Peter, and nothing should ever be at odds with this head. (Letter to Bishop Anastasius of Thessalonica, c. 446, 14:12; FEF, vol. 3, 270) [link to Schaff, NPNF2]
From the whole world only one, Peter, is chosen to preside over the calling of all nations, and over all the other Apostles, and over the Fathers of the Church . . . Peter . . . rules them all, of whom, too, it is Christ who is their chief ruler. Divine condescension, dearly beloved, has granted to this man in a wonderful and marvelous manner the aggregate of its power; and if there was something that it wanted to be his in common with other leaders, it never gave whatever it did not deny to others except through him. (Sermons, 4:2; FEF, vol. 3, 275)
For not only was the power of binding and loosing given to Peter before the others, but also to Peter more especially was entrusted the care of feeding the sheep. Yet anyone who denies that the headship must be denied to Peter, cannot really diminish his dignity: but is puffed up with the breath of his pride, and plunges himself to the lowest depth. (Letters, 10:2, 450, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, editors, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, 2nd series (“NPNF2”), vol. 12 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), 9) [link]
[T]he Universal Church has become a rock (petra) through the building up of that original Rock, and the first of the Apostles, the most blessed Peter . . . (Letters, 156:2, 458, NPNF2, 100) [link]
[R]emember that system of doctrine of which the chief of all the Apostles, the blessed Peter, laid the foundation, not only by his uniform preaching throughout the world, but especially by his teaching in the cities of Antioch and Rome: so that you may understand that he demands of him who is set over the home of his own renown those institutions which he handed down, as he received them from the Truth Itself, which he confessed. And in the churches of the East, and especially in those which the canons of the most holy Fathers at Nicaea (3) assigned to the See of Antioch, you must not by any means allow unscrupulous heretics to make assaults on the Gospel, and the dogmas of either Nestorius or Eutyches to be maintained by any one. Since, as I have said, the rock (petra) of the Catholic Faith, from which the blessed Apostle Peter took his name at the LORD’S hands, rejects every trace of either heresy; . . .
V. If Leo’s legates in any way exceeded their instructions, they did so ineffectually.
Of course, if anything is alleged to have been done by those brethren whom I sent in my stead to the holy Synod, beyond that which was germane to the Faith, it shall he of no weight at all: because they were sent by the Apostolic See only for the purpose of extirpating heresy and upholding the Catholic Faith.
For whatever is laid before bishops for inquiry beyond the particular subjects which come before synodal councils may admit of a certain amount of free discussion, if the holy Fathers have laid down nothing thereon at Nicaea. For anything that is not in agreement with their rules and constitutions can never obtain the assent of the Apostolic See. But how great must be the diligence with which this rule is kept, you will gather from the copies of the letter which we sent to the bishop of Constantinople, restraining his cupidity; and you shall take order that it reach the knowledge of all our brethren and fellow-priests . . . (Letter 119:2, 5; 11 June 453, NPNF2, 85-87) [link]
I. He is pleased to have been consulted by the bishops (6) Illyricum on important questions.
The brotherly love of our colleagues makes us read with grateful mind the letters of all priests (7); for in them we embrace one another in the spirit as if we were face to face, and by the intercourse of such epistles we are associated in mutual converse (8). But in this present letter the affection displayed seems to us greater than usual: for it informs us of the state of the churches (9), and urges us to a vigilant exercise of care by a consideration of our office, so that being placed, as it were, on a watch-tower, according to the will of the LORD, we should both lend our approval to things when they run in accordance with our wishes, and correct, by applying the remedies of compulsion, what we observe gone wrong through any aggression: hoping that abundant fruit will be the result of our sowing the seed, if we do not allow those things to increase which have begun to spring up to the spoiling of the harvest.
II. Following the examples of his predecessors he nominates Anastasius Metropolitan of Illyricum.
Now therefore, dear brother, that your request has been made known to us through our son Nicolaus the priest, that you, too, like your predecessors, might receive from us in our turn authority over Illyricum for the observance of the rules, we give our consent and earnestly exhort that no concealment and no negligence may be allowed in the management of the churches situated throughout Illyricum, which we commit to you in our stead, following the precedent of Siricius of blessed remembrance, . . .
V. Points which cannot be settled at the provincial synod are to be referred to Rome.
. . . by our decision we may vindicate our right of cognizance in accordance with old-established tradition and the respect that is due to the Apostolic See: for as we wish you to exercise your authority in our stead, so we reserve to ourselves points which cannot be decided on the spot and persons who have made appeal to us.
VI. Priests and deacons may not be ordained on weekdays any more than bishops.
You shall take order that this letter reach the knowledge of all the brethren, so that no one hereafter find an opportunity to excuse himself through ignorance in observing these things which we command . . . (Letter 6:1-2, 5; 12 January 444, NPNF2, 4-6) [link]
III. The City of Constantinople, royal though it be, can never be raised to Apostolic rank.
Let the city of Constantinople have, as we desire, its high rank, and under the protection of God’s right hand, long enjoy your clemency’s rule. Yet things secular stand on a different basis from things divine: and there can be no sure building save on that rock which the Lord has laid for a foundation.
III. The Synod of Chalcedon, which met for one purpose, ought never to have been used for another.
Accordingly these things which are found to be contrary to those most holy canons are exceedingly unprincipled and misguided. This haughty arrogance tends to the disturbance of the whole Church, which has purposed so to misuse a synodal council, as by wicked arguments to over-persuade, or by intimidation to compel, the brethren to agree with it, when they had been summoned simply on a matter of Faith, and had come to a decision on the subject which was to engage their care. For it was on this ground that our brothers sent by the Apostolic see, who presided in our stead at the synod with commendable firmness, withstood their illegal attempts, openly protesting against the introduction of any reprehensible innovation contrary to the enactments of the Council of Nicaea. . . . (Letter 106:3, NPNF2, 22 May 452, 77-79) [link]
I. . . . the most blessed Peter received the headship of the Apostles from the LORD, and the Church of Rome still abides by His institutions . . . (Letter 9:1, c. 445, NPNF2, 7) [link]
I. . . . that solicitude which by the Divine command we bestow on the whole Church . . . (Letter 12:1, 10 August 446, NPNF2, 12) [link]
II. . . . I . . . have delegated my authority to you, beloved, so that you, imitating our gentleness, might assist us in the care which we owe primarily to all the churches by Divine institution . . .
XII. . . . Though they have a common dignity, yet they have not a uniform rank; inasmuch as even among the blessed Apostles, notwithstanding the similarity of their honourable estate, there was a certain distinction of power, and while the election of them all was equal, yet it was given to one to take the lead of the rest . . . The care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter’s one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head. (Letter 14:2, 12, NPNF2, 16, 19) [link]
II. From Christ and through S. Peter the priesthood is handed on in perpetuity.
Although, therefore, dearly beloved, we be found both weak and slothful in fulfilling the duties of our office, because, whatever devoted and vigorous action we desire to do, we are hindered by the frailty of our very condition; yet having the unceasing propitiation of the Almighty and perpetual Priest, who being like us and yet equal with the Father, brought down His Godhead even to things human, and raised His Manhood even to things Divine, we worthily and piously rejoice over His dispensation, whereby, though He has delegated the care of His sheep to many shepherds, yet He has not Himself abandoned the guardianship of His beloved flock.
And from His overruling and eternal protection we have received the support of the Apostles’ aid also, which assuredly does not cease from its operation: and the strength of the foundation, on which the whole superstructure of the Church is reared, is not weakened (1) by the weight of the temple that rests upon it. For the solidity of that faith which was praised in the chief of the Apostles is perpetual: and as that remains which Peter believed in Christ, so that remains which Christ instituted in Peter. For when, as has been read in the Gospel lesson (2), the LORD had asked the disciples whom they believed Him to be amid the various opinions that were held, and the blessed Peter bad replied, saying, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living GOD,” the LORD says, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona, because flesh and flood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father, which is in heaven. And I say to thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth, shall be loosed also in heaven (3).”
III. S. Peter’s work is still carried out by his successors.
The dispensation of Truth therefore abides, and the blessed Peter persevering in the strength of the Rock, which he has received, has not abandoned the helm of the Church, which he undertook. For he was ordained before the rest in such a way that from his being called the Rock, from his being pronounced the Foundation, from his being constituted the Doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven, from his being set as the Umpire to bind and to loose, whose judgments shall retain their validity in heaven, from all these mystical titles we might know the nature of his association with Christ. And still to-day he more fully and effectually performs what is entrusted to him, and carries out every part of his duty and charge in Him and with Him, through Whom he has been glorified. And so if anything is rightly done and rightly decreed by us, if anything is won from the mercy of GOD by our daily supplications, it is of his work and merits whose power lives and whose authority prevails in his See. For this, dearly-beloved, was gained by that confession, which, inspired in the Apostle’s heart by GOD the Father, transcended all the uncertainty of human opinions, and was endued with the firmness of a rock, which no assaults could shake.
For throughout the Church Peter daily says, “Thou an the Christ, the Son of the living GOD,” and every tongue which confesses the LORD, accepts the instruction his voice conveys. This Faith conquers the devil, and breaks the bonds of his prisoners. It uproots us from this earth and plants us in heaven, and the gates of Hades cannot prevail against it. For with such solidity is it endued by GOD that the depravity of heretics cannot mar it nor the unbelief of the heathen overcome it.
IV. This festival then is in S. Peter’s honour, and the progress of his flock redounds to his glory.
And so, dearly beloved, with reasonable obedience we celebrate to-day’s festival by such methods, that in my humble person he may be recognized and honoured, in whom abides the care of all the shepherds, together with the charge of the sheep commended to him, and whose dignity is not abated even in so unworthy an heir.
And hence the presence of my venerable brothers and fellow-priests, so much desired and valued by me, will be the more sacred and precious, if they will transfer the chief honour of this service in which they have deigned to take part to him whom they know to be not only the patron of this see, but also the primate of all bishops.
When therefore we utter our exhortations in your ears, holy brethren, believe that he is speaking whose representative we are: because it is his warning that we give, nothing else but his teaching that we preach, beseeching you to “gird up the loins of your mind (4),” and lead a chaste and sober life in the fear of GOD, and not to let your mind forget his supremacy and consent to the lusts of the flesh.
. . . For though the whole Church, which is in all the world, ought to abound in all virtues, yet you especially, above all people, it becomes to excel in deeds of piety, because founded as you are on the very citadel of the Apostolic Rock, not only has our LORD Jesus Christ redeemed you in common with all men, but the blessed Apostle Peter has instructed you far beyond all men. Through the same Christ our LORD. (Sermon 3:2-4, NPNF2, 116-118) [link]
. . . the whole Church, which ever finds Peter in Peter’s See, and from affection for so great a shepherd grows not lukewarm even over so inferior a successor as myself. In order therefore, dearly beloved, that this loyalty which you unanimously display towards my humbleness may obtain the fruit of its zeal, on bended knee entreat the merciful goodness of our God that in our days He will drive out those who assail us, strengthen faith, increase love, increase peace and deign to render me His poor slave, whom to show the riches of His grace He has willed to stand at the helm of the Church, . . . (Sermon 2:2, NPNF2) [link]
The devout faith of our most clement prince, knowing that it especially concerns his glory to prevent any seed of error from springing up within the Catholic Church, has paid such deference to the Divine institutions as to apply to the authority of the Apostolic See for a proper settlement: as if he wished it to be declared by the most blessed Peter himself what was praised in his confession, when the Lord said,
whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am ? and the disciples mentioned various people’s opinion: but, when He asked what they themselves believed, the chief of the apostles, embracing the fullness of the Faith in one short sentence, said,
You are the Christ, the son of the living God :
. . . (Letter 33:1; 13 June 449, NPNF2) [link]
[O]n Saturday let us keep vigil in the presence of the most blessed Apostle Peter; who, as we experience and know, watches unceasingly like a shepherd over the sheep entrusted to him by the Lord, and who will prevail in his entreaties that the Church of God, which was founded by his preaching, may be free from all error, through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Sermon 16:6, NPNF2) [link]
“Leo the Great on the Supremacy of the Bishop of Rome” (Denis Kaiser, August 2015)
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Photo credit: Pope St. Leo the Great, by Francisco Herrera the Younger (1627-1685) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]